Last week Gregg Ritchie, head baseball coach at George Washington University, was talking about what happens when a baseball team strikes out more than seven times in a game. The more you whiff the less chance you have of winning, explained Ritchie. Sunday night’s game showed just how accurate that theory is: The Royals struck out eight times against Giants’ ace Madison Bumgarner, meaning that for nearly three full innings the Royals failed to put the ball in play and force the Giants to make plays. “You have to make your own chances against a front-line pitcher like Bumgarner,” says Ritchie. And when you don’t, chances are that you’ll lose.
As the San Francisco Giants northeast director of scouting John Castleberry told me, this World Series is an example of pre-steroid baseball—grinding baseball, with lots of defense and solid team fundamentals, which on offense means putting the ball in play. However, the reality is that these two clubs are exceptional, especially when it comes to making the other side catch and throw the ball, because strike out rates are hitting historical, and absurd, highs. Consider the fact that hitters were striking out more than 20 percent of the time this year, compared to a little less than 15 percent in 1990 and 8.2 percent in 1930.
Once baseball started to emphasize power production, explains Ritchie, strikeouts became more acceptable. Still, he sees that with home run totals the trend is starting to shift back the other way. In the 90s, he notes, lots of guys were hitting 40 home runs a year. Brady Anderson, a nice player but hardly Babe Ruth, hit 50 homers in 1996. This year Nelson Cruz was the only player to hit 40 home runs. “With home run totals going down,” says Ritchie, “there’s a premium on putting the ball in play.” The clubs that implement it, like the Giants and Royals, will succeed, and other big league teams will spend October watching baseball rather than playing it.
Still, Ritchie acknowledges, strikeouts are going to happen, it’s a part of the game. The issue for him, whether he was a batting instructor with the White Sox organization, a batting coach for the big league club in Pittsburgh, or now directing a NCAA Division I program, is the character of a hitter’s at-bat.
“The answer to ‘what is a good at-bat?’ is simple,” says Ritchie. “Did you make it easier for the guy after you or did you make it harder? If you made it harder, you didn’t not have a quality a bat. If you go 0-2 and then strike out, you made it harder for the guy coming to the plate. But if you go 0-2, then choke up and make the pitcher throw seven pitches, there’s still some quality to the at-bat. Just ask a guy, ‘what would you like to see when you are on deck?’ Do you want to see the hitter at the plate take a fastball over the middle? Do you want to see him pull off the ball and take a hero swing? Do you want to see him fail to get a bunt down, stranding a guy at 2nd and now with another out, making it harder for you? Your at-bat affects the next guy—it’s not just about you, but about the team.”
Of course, what makes it baseball is that the game is also about individual performance. Hence, Ritchie argues that match-ups, or arranging to pit one player against another against whom he has a good chance of success, is a central part of what any coaching staff does. Ritchie says that as early as spring training, front office executives, managers and coaches are preparing for the season ahead by developing the skill sets of their players and team depth—in other words, the raw material that allows them to strategize and plot out match-ups against opposing teams. “You want to get the right hitters going against the right pitchers, you want to match up catchers against the opposing team’s base-stealers,” says Ritchie. “The quality of talent in the big leagues is so high that you’re always looking for even the smallest margin, anything that gives you an edge. And it starts even before big league clubs leave spring training,” says Ritchie. “They’re already preparing for the first series. By the time they’re there, they’re getting ready for the next series and it goes all year like that.”